For director James Ponsoldt, too many movies are characterized by a clear, black-and-white sense of good and bad.
Describing his new film, "The Spectacular Now," he says, "Here it's murky and gray and comes from a place of neediness, and desire to be liked. You want a character to be stronger than that, but I challenge any filmgoer to say they've always been that strong. I know I haven't."
In the movie, based on the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp, high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is the good-time guy everyone knows and likes. He lives in the moment, though he is perhaps a bit too fond of drinking.
Early on, he passes out and wakes up on the front lawn of shy, bookish Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), who doesn't quite know where she fits in the world.
Together they form a nuanced and troubled relationship.
Ponsoldt has directed two great performances — Teller and Woodley won a shared acting prize at the Sundance Film Festival — and clearly has a love for actors.
He says Woodley has "strength and intelligence and a distinct lack of vanity." He compares her to Sissy Spacek, Barbara Hershey and Debra Winger at the same age.
As for Teller, Ponsoldt saw and admired him in the drama "Rabbit Hole," and compares him to Henry Fonda and Jean Gabin.
"There's so much chaos in so many of these films, but they're just still, and their eyes can tell you everything. And he has that," Ponsoldt says. "He has more charisma than any actor I've met in my life, and he has soul."
Oddly, Ponsoldt's first two features, "Off the Black" and last year's "Smashed," also dealt with alcoholism to some degree.
"I'm not an alcoholic. I drink, but not that much," he says. "People around me have dealt with substance abuse of different types. I don't really pass judgment. It's not that strange to me. Everyone has some kind of scar tissue."
Thanks to movie-loving parents, Ponsoldt developed a taste for the "weird comedy-dramas" of the 1970s and 1980s, which have defined his approach to filmmaking.
"I couldn't tell a story where I can't find myself in the characters," he says. "I've been profoundly weak and stupid and bad to the people that I love. I wish I was always good and selfless, but I'm a human.
IF YOU GOThe Spectacular Now
Starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Written by Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes
Note: Screenwriter Scott Neustadter appears tonight at Sundance Kabuki and Century 9 SF Centre theaters.